Mixed martial arts, or MMA for short, is simultaneously a newer sport and one that is nearly as ancient as any stand-alone fighting style. Mixing various forms of martial arts goes back to 648 BC. But MMA as a unified sport only came around in the early 1990s. So what exactly is MMA, and why has it retained its popularity through so many centuries and variations? A closer look at both the ancient and modern origins is required to determine that.
The first origins of MMA appeared prior to 600 BC. Competitions that allowed the mixing of various fighting styles became popular and even entered the ancient Olympic games. Outside of Greece, countries such as India, Egypt, and Japan may have also hosted their own inter-style events around the same time. It’s safe to say that humans in that time didn’t know nearly as much about collagen protein, which made these ancient sports even more difficult and dangerous.
Jumping forward about 1500 years, and mixing and matching fighting styles was still in fashion. In France, a combat style known as savate emerged around the 1850s. It focused mostly on kicking skills and styles, but had a heavy influence from English boxing. Savate fighters were often eager to take on fighters with other styles, and competitions were popular into the late 1950s. At the same time, catch wrestling was gaining in popularity. This sport incorporates various forms of wrestling from all over the globe.
All of these precursors met up in the latter half of the 1900s when three main combat styles converged to form what we now know as MMA. These styles are Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Japanese professional wrestling, and the street fighting culture of Hong Kong. The 1960s-1980s saw further refinement of this combination. Finally in 1993, the burgeoning sport made its way to the United States and earned its name from a review of the UFC.
So how did such an ancient and complicated sport retain its initial popularity and continue to dominate the combat fighting world? That answer depends on who you ask. Many fans point to the extreme athleticism of competitors. To be successful, they must master multiple forms of fighting and implement all those techniques into a winning style. Fighters compete in a ring or cage. Utilizing the walls of the cage is permissible in some cases, which requires combatants to think spatially even in the midst of a match. It’s essentially a game of human chess, but one in which the pieces are throwing punches and kicks.
Other fans cite the connectedness of the MMA world as a major draw. Unlike in other sports, MMA fighters and organization heads are often deeply connected to their fan base. Athletes tend to view MMA as less of a job and more of a lifestyle, and that creates deeper bonds with their supporters. Due to the extreme physical nature of the sport, many fans view their favorite competitors as among the most resilient of professional athletes. This further drives a connection.
Still other fans will tell you that it’s the primal urge to fight and win dominance over others that drives their fandom. Whether that’s true or not, it’s hard to deny that there is a visceral rush that comes from watching two top athletes battling it out. With an estimated 550 million fans around the world, it’s clear that whatever is driving the fandom, it’s a powerful force indeed.
Two thousand years of history and development have led to what we today call MMA. Mixed martial arts blends nearly a dozen separate disciplines into one high-combat sport. The modern MMA industry has very strict rules, weight classes, training, testing, and safety protocols. This ensures that matches are equal and as safe as possible for competitors. All of this regulation also ensures a much more positive experience for fans. So if you are looking for a new combat sport to follow, you can’t get much better or more physical than MMA.
(Photo by Jason Silva/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)
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